Egypt: will there be a place for women's human rights?

In the days ahead a struggle looms over women's human rights and gender justice in Egypt. Will the Muslim Sisters rise to the occasion?

On March 8th 2011 a small number of civil society and development professionals along with a few students and academics staged a celebration of International Women’s Day in Tahrir square. This was a month after the fall of Mubarak and the assumption of control by the army. It was a time of seemingly infinite possibility and boundless liberation. It therefore came as a surprise when the few hundred huddled in the middle of the square were berated, ridiculed and finally chased into the side streets and physically attacked.  This was the first appearance of what would later come to be known as the ‘third’ or ‘invisible’ hand- the hand that later tormented and killed hundreds of protestors. This hand is assumed to be operated either by the old establishment, or by the military or by Egyptians fed up with protestors: in short, it is the hand of counter revolutionary elements! However there was little sympathy for those attacked in the square. Progressive political groups were un-interested in questions of gender equality and justice.

A year later, on the 8 March 2012, a grand demonstration took place in Cairo. There were feminist, human rights activists, political parties from the socialists to the social democrats, pioneers from the 9th March movement for academic freedoms and members of Kifaya. Thousands showed up and marched from the Egyptian journalists’ syndicate to Parliament, winding their way down the heart of Cairo and through Tahrir square holding up banners demanding equal representation for women in the yet to be selected constitutional committee, and registering their anger at proposed changes to personal status laws which could mean that Egyptian women will lose some of their rights.

What a  difference a year can make! Women’s human rights have over the past year gone from oblivion and ignominy to becoming a cause celebre of the people. This past week there were daily chat shows on television celebrating women inviting labour activists, socialists, feminists, and scholars of Islam to discuss gender-based rights and women’s representation. There were also celebrations to honour veterans from the field of women’s activism, and Angham, one of Egypt’s leading divas sang a specially composed song that praises women as ‘half the world”.  Missing from these celebrations and demonstrations was the strongest and largest political force in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood and their Freedom and Justice Party.

The Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) organized a seminar and an all day conference on the subject, during which they distanced themselves and their position on women’s issues from the rest of the women’s movement. The women’s committee of the party has begun to formulate a gender narrative that focuses on the sanctity of the family, and on women’s reproductive roles and responsibilities. They have condemned the changes made to personal status laws over the past decade, taking a populist position that panders to the public’s perceptions - or misperceptions - of  so-called ‘Suzanne Mubarak’s laws’.  These are the legislative reforms that that have enabled women to exit bad marriages, keep custody of their children beyond the ages of 7 years for boys and 9 years for girls, travel without having to get their husband’s consent for each journey, and to contest gender based discriminations through the office of an ombudsman and the intercessions of a national machinery for women. These laws were changed seemingly by presidential fiat and appropriated by Mubarak’s entourage, but in fact were achieved by the slow and accumulated efforts of national, regional and global feminist and human rights lobbies and groups.

The FJP have been harping on nationalism and patriarchal pride. They have projected the Convention for the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) as a global ‘American’ conspiracy to destroy the Egyptian Family and to impose western morality. Various young women aligned to the party have appeared on television and in public events making similar claims. This seems to be an opinion that pervades the FJP circles.

Moreover the party has vehemently condemned the newly appointed National Council for Women, and has withdrawn their own member of Parliament who was amongst the 30 members of the newly appointed board. They have plans to turn the national women’s machinery into a council for the family. Their frustrations with the Council were expressed recently - albeit in an unfortunately exaggerated gesture - when they protested the absence of Mervat el Tellawy from a panel discussion on women’s status on March 5th  2012.  Ms Tellawy did not show up because she was on the tarmac of  Shannon airport after her flight from New York to Cairo experienced engine failure, and made an emergency landing in Ireland. This, by all accounts, constitutes  a  case of ‘force majeure’; however the good sisters stormed out of the hall shouting abuse at the Council and at Ms. Tellawy.

The FJP are not alone in their opposition to the National Council for Women. Secular feminists and socialists have also condemned the new council. They have voiced concerns regarding the names of appointees, and were against the way in which the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) made the appointments without consultation; the SCAF did not even consult the appointees themselves. But this is as far the convergence between secular and religious women activists go.  Other than sharing a condemnation of the NCW (for different reasons - both substantive and procedural), the Muslim Sisters and the women’s movement share little else.

The FJP narrative is Islamic in its reference points but has little to do with Islamic reformism or feminism. It is a narrative that is conservative and constrained by the deference of the women of FJP to the male members of their party. This is not only a disappointment for most observers, but is also a major problem for the FJP itself. Rather than expending some effort to forge alliances with women’s groups from civil society and other political parties to address obstacles to gender justice and to social rights, they have made common cause with their male  party members against the agenda of activists and women’s right proponents. They  have chosen an oppositional stance and condemned reforms for gender justice without really sharing their own ideas or consulting their peers on their program. At best this may reflect a lack of networking capabilities on their part; but at worst it could be a sign of elitism and sense of superiority. The sisters have chosen to remain under the wing of their triumphant brothers rather than dialogue with their diverse sisters from a rainbow of political orientations and positions! They have also ignored the venerable tradition of reformism within the theological discourses of Islam. Feminists like Omaima Abu Bakr, and theologians like Amna Nosseir are two of many who are searching for progressive interpretations of scriptures that can become a foundation upon which Muslim women can launch their activism. The women of FJP have yet to share their own theological and social program, or to reveal their biases and political positions. So far they seem to be keen on conforming with their party line, which is insensitive to issues of gender equality and justice.

The FJP have not inspired women but rather have frightened them. It is to them, I think, that we owe the robust demonstrations of this year. By failing to champion women’s rights they have made the general public, rights movements, and political parties, wake up to the women’s cause and take to the streets and the airwaves.

Now another opportunity presents itself for the FJP women’s committee to show some leadership. The cases of forced virginity tests performed on women demonstrators under detention have created public outrage. The verdict in the Samira Ibrahim case - a young woman who pressed charges against her aggressors -  was announced and a military court pronounced the doctor, who performed the virginity test on this young woman when she was in custody last year, innocent.

Will the FJP - and the Muslim Sisters - side with Samira, or will it ignore this brave woman’s fight for the sanctity of her body?